The golden glow of the whiskey refracted in the lighted mirror, the sweet smoky scent perfumed the air, beckoning her to taste. Rae held the tumbler of Jack on ice, the ice having long since melted and blended with the whiskey. The memory of the sweet burn filled her mouth. Rae sat the glass back on the bar, shifting the coaster to square up with the glass. The edge of the glass lined up with the logo, fitting into the circle with the same amount left around the edge. Tracing her finger through the condensation, she fought the memories that threatened her sobriety.
“Congratulations,” Rae hugged each of the twins, so proud of them.
“We didn’t win,” DJ grumbled accepting the embrace with cool disinterest.
The beauty pageant was hardly her thing but still, she looked beautiful and Rae told her so. She left Logan talking to his sisters, she wanted to speak to Dana, to congratulate her on a job well done.
Rae was intercepted by Jake. “Rae, I need to speak to you and Billy.”
The tone in his voice warned her this wasn’t going to be a friendly chat. She could hear the official SBI agent though he looked at her with the eyes of a friend.
She stopped in the middle of the auditorium, wishing she could run. Logan came up behind her, his strength a fortress. Rae leaned into him, foreboding whispering she would need him. She was unaware of her father and brother joining them. Her focus was so intent upon the agent.
“Perhaps we should go somewhere more private,” Jake suggested.
Billy swore. “Whatever you need to say, say it. We’re all here.”
Jake’s sad eyes met hers and she knew, even before he said the words. “I’m sorry to tell you that Marisol Grimes was found dead in her apartment. It is believed she took her own life.”
“Marisol would not have killed herself,” her father insisted. “Not when she was this close to meeting Rae and Billy again.”
Jake agreed, “I find it difficult to believe as well but the evidence…”
“Could be tampered with…” Billy said.
Jake nodded. “But the official ruling is suicide unless you can get them to change it to unexplained death.”
Billy and her dad started asking questions.
Rae turned to Logan, burying her face against his chest. “I should have met with her when I had the chance.”
His arms banded around her, holding her upright though she felt like crumbling.
Billy cursed and stormed out the community center.
“How many of those have you had?” Billy asked easing onto the stool beside her. His cologne filled the air, dulling the aroma of the whiskey.
Rae glanced up at the mirror, her eyes meeting his in the silver surface. She shrugged. “I’m drinking a toast to Mom.”
Billy nodded the bartender over and ordered a beer.
She watched his reflection in the mirror. Billy raised an eyebrow and gave nod to the bartender, motioning towards her and the glass in front of her.
Charlie held up one finger and shrugged. He pulled a bottle for the cooler and popped the top setting it and a coaster in front of Billy.
Billy took a sip and turned to her. “What are you doing here, Rae.” The smell of hops and yeast scented his breath, mingling with the minty mouthwash. “You’ve been on the wagon for months now. Why would you want to screw that up?”
She picked up the glass and smelled the whiskey, wanting desperately to taste it and hating herself for her weakness. Slamming the glass to the bar, she turned to her brother and hissed, “Because I’m a screw up. That’s what I do.”
“And yet you’ve managed to stay sober for months, save granddad’s fishing camp and fall in love. If you want to talk about screw ups, I believe I have more claim to that than you do.”
“Dana?” Rae asked seeing the loneliness in his eyes. She’d seen that same look in the mirror until recently. Finding Logan and sobriety had given her something she’d not known in years, a sense of self. She stared at the whiskey, knowing she’d be giving up more than her achieved sobriety if she succumbed to the weakness now. Billy was right, she’d come so far, she couldn’t throw it all away on one drink. She sighed knowing it wouldn’t be just one drink.
“I shouldn’t have let her go.” Billy’s words brought her out of her own thoughts.
“You shouldn’t have messed with her to start with,” she was angry that he’d toyed with her best friend’s affection.
He winced. “It’s difficult not to when someone treats you like you’re some kind of hero…”
Rae rolled her eyes. “You’re not in love with her.”
“How do you know what I am?” Billy demanded balling his fist onto the bar rattling their drinks and causing the other patrons to glare in their direction.
Rae narrowed her eyes daring one of them to say something. Her reputation lingered and the other patrons turned away not wanting to start something with the crazy girl. She hid her smile with the lift of her glass. Pressing the cool, hard surface to her lips until the sweet, pungent scent of the whiskey reached her nose and she slammed the glass back to the bar. “If you were in love with her, you wouldn’t have been tempted by every other girl that walked by.”
Billy flushed a dull red and sipped his beer. “So, you going to drink that whiskey or just stare at it?”
Rae shrugged and turned the glass around and around. “I’ve paid for it. I guess I can do whatever I want with it.”
He sighed. “You don’t want it.”
Rae sighed and scooted the to the far edge of the bar. “Charlie, can I have a bottle of water?”
The bartender returned and handed her an ice-cold bottle of water. He opened it and set it in front of her. He started to take the glass of whiskey away. Rae put her hand on it, then nodded, allowing him to remove the temptation.
Rae took off the cap and drank greedily from the bottle. Her thirst satisfied, she set the near-empty bottle on the bar and heaved a sigh. “I’ll never have the chance to ask her why?”
“Why she left?” Billy asked studying his bottle of beer as if it had the answers to the universe. The pale gold absorbed the faint glow from the lights encircling the mirror. Like most bars, the Hard Hat was dimly lit except over the pool tables where a pool of light illuminated the Kelly green felt.
Rae picked at the label on the water bottle. “Why everything? Why she left? Why she and daddy fought? Why she didn’t come back? Why we weren’t enough for her…” her voice cracked.
Billy put his hand on his sister’s and gave hers a little squeeze. “Rae, it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t change anything.”
“What if I’m like her?” She whispered, unshed tears making her voice thick.
Billy shook his head. “You’re not.”
“How do you know?”
“You stuck out with me and dad even when we didn’t make it easy for you,” Billy said. “You’ve been friends with Dana and Jenna since middle school and the three of you are still tight.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does. I’m not friends with the same guys I was friends with in high school. I’m close to the squad, but most of those guys I’ve only known a few years.”
“I’m pregnant,” Rae whispered.
Billy nodded. “Yeah, I heard.”
She blinked back tears. “I don’t know how to be a good parent.”
“You know what not to do,” he laughed.
She blinked. “I’m terrified.”
He draped his arm awkwardly about her shoulders. “You have Logan. You have me and dad and the girls. We’ll be there for you. You might even teach me how to be a decent human being.”
She snorted and shoved his arm off her shoulders. “I don’t do miracles.”
“You can do this, sis.”
She sighed and pushed back her stool. “I guess we should plan some kind of memorial for mom.”
Billy closed his eyes. “I don’t know what to say. I barely remember her.”
She took in a deep breath and stood. “Maybe we’ll just have our close family and friends. Ms. Sandy and who was her other friend?”
“I don’t remember, we’ll have to ask dad.”
“Maybe we could do something down at the water?”
Billy turned around on his stool. “Yeah, that sounds good.” He tapped his foot on the bottom rung of the stool. “I-uh bought a grave site up at that park in Washington.”
Rae let out a shaky breath. “Have they told you when they’re going to release the body?”
Billy shook his head. “The FBI won’t release her body until they are sure they’ve gotten all the evidence they can.”
“You think she was murdered?” They’d managed to get the state bureau to investigate their mother’s death. They found evidence that she may not have committed suicide but so far, they were ruling it an unexplained death. She sighed.
Billy looked past her not meeting her eyes. “It would be too compact, too neat if she’d killed herself now.” He shook his head brought his eyes up to meet hers. “No, I don’t believe it was an accident. Either Malcolm or her mysterious boyfriend are responsible.”
“Do you think Malcolm hired the boyfriend?”
Billy pursed his lips, his forehead wrinkling. “It’s a possibility.”
Rae pulled a five from her pocket and set it on the bar and leaned in and brushed her lips against his cheek. The scent of his aftershave filled her nose. “Thanks Billy. You know, you’re not a bad big brother.”
He snorted. “Such praise, it’ll go to my head.”
She knew Billy watched her as she headed out of the bar. He’d come to rescue her. Charlie probably called him, but he’d come. It was nice to know her big brother was looking out for her.
A dark-haired man she’d never met brushed past her as Rae started out the door. An eerie feeling tickled her spine and she leaped back, giving him room. A familiar scent teased her memory, making her palms sweat. Her eyes followed him as her memory sought to recall him.
He walked purposefully towards the pool tables. Feeling her eyes on him, he turned his head and smiled. The smile didn’t reach his eyes.
Rae shivered and turned away. Feeling the need to run she forced her steps to slow. She would not cower. Out in the parking lot she was relieved to see the pink Harley parked under a street light. The nights were starting to get cool, but she didn’t have far to ride. A glance back at the bar showed Billy standing in the doorway, watching her. She threw her hand up and waved.
Rae started the bike and headed home. The image of the older man lingered in her thoughts. His behavior had been rude. Most southern men stepped back to allow a female to pass. He’d made a point of crowding her space. He’d wanted her to notice him. Why? She shivered but it wasn’t the cold wind in her face that had her skin prickling. She needed to talk to Jake, she wanted to see the photos of her mother’s boyfriend. I’ll wager it’s him.